February 2, 2023 

UNLV building something big in the desert

The Rebels’ 80-57 win over their in-state rival was witnessed by a sellout crowd of more than 2,500 — the first in program history

A man approached Essence Booker at the end of Saturday’s game between UNLV and Nevada-Reno with tears in his eyes. He told Booker that he had been following the program for more than 30 years and he’d never seen anything like what he witnessed at Cox Pavilion.

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And he wasn’t wrong. The Rebels’ 80-57 win over their in-state rival was witnessed by a sellout crowd of more than 2,500, the first in program history. The UNLV football team rolled into the gym, members of the Las Vegas Aces were in the building and the Rebels did what they do best these days — they won.

UNLV is 10-0 in the Mountain West Conference and, on an 11-game wins streak overall, headed into a weekend road trip to New Mexico and Air Force. It is the Rebels’ best-ever start to a conference season.

It’s getting headier by the moment in Las Vegas, with UNLV receiving nine votes in this week’s AP Top 25 poll thanks to a 20-2 overall record and an NCAA Net Ranking of 56 and what’s proving so compelling about what’s being built in the desert is that this is a homegrown story.

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Head coach Lindy La Rocque, in her third season, is a Vegas basketball legend, a high school star who competed in four Final Fours under Tara VanDerveer at Stanford. The team’s two top players, Desi-Rae Young and Booker, are Las Vegas products.

Photo Credit: UNLV Athletics

The community is primed to support the Rebels, building off the interest in the WNBA Champion Las Vegas Aces. This is where La Rocque wanted it to go when she took the job in 2020.

“It was a special moment on Saturday, for the team, for the athletic department, and it was monumental to have it be for us,” La Rocque said. “I knew it could happen and it did. Now I feel greedy because I want people to come back.”

She is giving them every reason to at this point, taking the program to the NCAA Tournament in just her second season at the helm, with a second-place finish in the Mountain West race in 2002 and building on that success this season with an experienced, talented team headlined by Young and Booker. In a short period of time, UNLV is positioned to take its place next to the top mid-major programs on the West Coast among teams like Gonzaga and BYU.

Young, the reigning Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, is the league’s second-leading scorer (17.8 ppg) and leading rebounder (10.3). She is shooting nearly 60 percent from the floor and leads the Rebels in steals (39) and blocked shots (10). Booker is averaging 13.5 points with a team-leading 74 assists.

But the Rebels are deeper than that, with five players scoring in double figures against UNR. Booker came home to Vegas from Ball State after talking with La Rocque, who made it clear that she was intent on winning a championship and wanted players who wanted that too. Interestingly, she didn’t know her coach’s Las Vegas background.

“She told me the things I had to do in order to be part of the team in order for us to be successful and she had a big vision for it,” Booker said. “This is what I came here to do, to be a part of something. “I was born and raised in Las Vegas and I feel like we are selling the idea to kids from this area that you can do something special.”

It’s been an eventful season in every way for La Rocque, who had her first child in November, a daughter named Ellie, going into labor during an exhibition game against Chico State. Ellie and her husband, Dan Cunningham, are traveling with the team and La Rocque says it’s able to help her stay focused on her program. Despite their success, she believes they are still just “close” to where she wants them to be.

“We haven’t put together a great 40 minutes. It’s been a great 20 minutes or 20-something minutes, but we’ve been doing good things,” La Rocque said. “I think we are still growing and leaving some stuff out there where we need to continue to improve. We have five weeks to improve, to win a championship.”

She needs her group to push past the complacency that can build up when you are successful, she said. La Rocque laughs, thinking back to her days at Stanford when she and her teammates – Cardinal legends such as Jayne Appel-Marinelli and Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike — would win a lot of games and then come into the locker room to listen to VanDerveer critique them.

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“We would be like ‘When are you going to be happy?’ but I get that now,” La Rocque said. “I want us to be excited for the things we are doing well, stay humble and work hard. My job is to hold them accountable, to give them a view of the things they can’t see. Winning is fun, but winning is hard and we have to remember that.”

But she also wants her team to appreciate moments like Saturday when it feels like something special is building around the program. Young said after the game, she felt “blessed” to have experienced playing in front of a gym packed with local fans.

“If I was a young kid in Vegas, I want them to see that we can attract the top talent in the country here, but that we can also be a place for local kids because there are others who have done it. How can you look at this and not be excited by it?”

Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

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